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Minnesota singer thriving with classical-metal niche

Cottage Grove, Minn., native Melissa Ferlaak has carved out a unique vocal niche, teaches vocal lessons and works for the Hennepin Theatre Trust. (Photo

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. -- A suburban community such as Cottage Grove doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would breed a heavy metal nightingale like Melissa Ferlaak.

Her music defies easy categorization. If a rocker chick saddled up and rode with composer Richard Wagner’s warrior Valkyries into the Norse netherworld, she might look and sound something like this.

A 1997 graduate of Park High School, Ferlaak has sung in a variety of experimental bands that mix heavy metal, new age, opera and classical music. The sound usually alternates molten guitar riffs with hushed, classically-inflected piano or guitar. The lyrics, which she sings in her gossamer soprano, range from mystical to morbid.

Her latest project is MY Eternel, an ambient music duo she founded with musician and partner Yann Bourquin. Their debut album, “Pursuit of a Higher Throne,” was released last month on DSM Music. It’s available in digipack and on Amazon and iTunes.

“The more metal stuff, people would compare it to Evanescence,” said Ferlaak, who lives in Maple Grove. “With MY Eternel, some people have said (that it sounds like) Sarah Brightman, Enya. Some people have said it sounds like straight-up classical music with more modern instruments.”

“Pursuit of a Higher Throne” might surprise those who know Ferlaak as the lead singer for Minneapolis death metal band Plague of Stars. The songs, which include a cover of the Doors’ “Crystal Ship,” are lush and dreamlike. Many were inspired by the romance between Ferlaak and Bourquin, a native of France.

“We just really wanted to do an album that felt very true, very passionate, that wasn’t dark at all,” she said.

Ferlaak’s career has taken her to concerts and metal festivals in Norway, the Czech Republic, Mexico City and Asia. She’s belted out high-decibel hard rock anthems to legions of fist-pumping metalheads from here to Taiwan.

It’s probably not something her classmates at Park would have expected from a cherubic blonde girl who performed in musicals and indulged her passion for figure skating at the Cottage Grove Ice Arena. Her musical tastes ran more to the Indigo Girls, Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan than, say, Black Sabbath, Slayer or Cannibal Corpse.

“I didn’t listen to metal,” she said, laughing. “This is embarrassing to say, but I didn’t know it existed.”

She went over to the dark side during her senior year at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she met fellow music major John Prassas, a member of the avant garde metal group Aesma Daeva. Ferlaak signed on as lead singer for the band, which took its name from the demon of lust and anger in Persian mythology. They played “symphonic metal,” which combines the grandeur of classical music with metal power chords.

“I loved it because the audiences were so exciting,” Ferlaak said. “We would take a couple of Mozart arias and turn them into metal songs. It just sort of became something that we’re really known for.”

In 2005, she left Aesma Daeva and joined the Austrian band Visions of Atlantis. On a tour of China, they were banned from performing in one city because officials there hadn’t gotten a chance to review the lyrics to their songs.

“You have to have all of your lyrics approved by the government,” Ferlaak said.

She sang one of the songs she wrote with Visions of Atlantis when she auditioned for season 6 of “American Idol.”

It didn’t go well, she said.

“Funny enough, Simon (Cowell) didn’t say anything bad. But Jewel, who I loved growing up, actually ripped me apart. The other hosts were like, ‘OK, that was interesting.’ ”

Fellow 1997 Park graduate Karla Bigham said she figured “Missy” would pursue a musical career — although she didn’t expect it would be as a heavy metal goddess.

“I was thinking more of a classical singer because she has such a beautiful soprano voice,” said Bigham, a former state lawmaker who lives in Cottage Grove. “I’ve seen her with Plague of Stars. She’s quite the stage presence.”

Ferlaak, who obtained her master’s degree in vocal performance at New England Conservatory in Boston, sang at her friend’s wedding.

“I’m very proud of her,” Bigham said. “She’s got a big talent. I’m proud of her for chasing her dreams.”

Ferlaak gives private vocal lessons and is director of Education and Community Engagement at the Hennepin Theatre Trust. She has sung with Theater Latte Da, Coro!, Thursday Musical and the Schubert Club.

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William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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